The Legacy & The Timeliness of M.I Abaga’s ‘Illegal Music 2’
the rapper's masterclass on mythmaking
the rapper's masterclass on mythmaking
The year is 2012 and M.I Abaga is one of the hottest rappers in the continent. It’s April, a sleeper month where not many listeners would be expecting a project packed with collaborations. And not just any other project, but a mixtape which continued the Chocolate City rapper’s well-received Illegal Music. At the time of its release, M.I fans had waited three years, and then waited some more, but when ‘IM2’ dropped on that faithful day in April, it was no fool’s play.
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Looking back, it’s obvious why a rap mixtape would be met with that sort of ubiquity. For anyone in the loop, it really was the era of bars and projecting intelligence. A lot of young Nigerians were entering the world of the internet and acquiring tastes far different from the familiar sound of the mainstream. Even though pop musicians still coveted the majority of the audience, it was cool to love rappers. And from such admiration sprung the love for its culture, the love for its technical aspects, love for the expansive potential of rap to hold and express weighty stories, to shine an uncompromising light on the self and the society.
M.I emerged somewhere near the ending of the 2000’s, at a time when one could say the rap scene was blossoming. The elaborate rhymes of Modenine were appropriately coveted by the critics and award shows, while Ruggedman and Eedris Abdulkareem made affecting records which spoke to the everyman’s reality. When M.I’s “Crowd Mentality” won Best Rap Single at the 2008 Headies, he rubbed shoulders for the first time with these names, proving to be an equal and a peer. That record was an alleged response to Chocolate City’s boss Audu Maikori, who had requested M.I make a pop-leaning record to aid his entry into the mainstream.
Soon after, when “Safe” followed, it featured another intelligent mimicry. This time there were several voices informing the bars, and the ability of Jude Abaga to still shine through, not just an exceptional rapper but a music-maker first and foremost. The ‘Illegal Music’ mixtapes was M.I’s way of reflecting these qualities in an unencumbered way, not limited by the demands of being a label act or a mainstream-affiliated rapper.
Constructed on samples of mostly American records, the 2009-released ‘IM’ set the blueprint for the series. The rapper dug from the archives of classic R&B and then-popular rap—Kanye West, Lil Wayne, Jay-Z, Snoop Dogg. The second mixtape was no different, only this time the featured artists were the dominant standout and had people talking. To add, the music was very well-written and produced too. It didn’t just feel a bunch of soulful samples slapped together to evoke melancholy; sometimes the mood is rib cracking funny, sometimes it lingers in-between as M.I sprinkles spoken word into bare spaces.
On the opener “Coming Home,” the rapper stages a grand re-entrance, shiny horns and triumphant synths shooting from every corner of the production. Tonii, who sings the hook, delivers a spoken word to introduce the scene: “The return is not as easy as I thought. The years have taken toll and been unkind,” she says with a sort of aged stoicity. With his first verse M.I lightens the affair, adapting a slightly funny tone to basically say he’s been making more money. Artists, after all, need you to take them seriously while not taking themselves very seriously—that playful approach to one’s craft can sometimes be revelatory, which is something M.I has always understood. The second verse is more lived-in, speaking on the mixtape’s attendant anticipation. “Did you lose hope or is your faith strong?/ See I just needed time to take a break from/ All this mediocrity and usher in new sounds,” he raps with a cocky mien, confident in the body of work he’s presenting.
At fifteen songs, the Illegal Music 2 is aptly-numbered for a mixtape. There’s a fine blend of introspective cuts, romantic bops, and braggadocio-heavy records. A song like “Sex Love BS” falls into the first category, laying tender bars over the soothing notes of the production. Lyrics such as “They say that time is money and the time we gon spend/ With no urgency, the currency, the time will never end” reveal MI’s simpler ways which is often the result of hard-earned wisdom. “Eyes” toes a similar path, but the soundscape is even more lush though the lyricism is less affecting.
There are few times across the tape where a flaw is glaringly obvious. The pacing is sometimes overstretched but on a personal level, the songs offer incredible highs. Still on the mild-hued records, “Pain” and “Flower” are late-project cuts, the former seeing the musicians rise over tribulations and claiming their rightful place in the world. “Flower” calls up Ruby Gyang for the simple hook (“open up, wild flower/ open up, let me see”), and on his verses M.I looks back on his career, giving shoutouts and generally exuding the mien of an approachable boss.
In the ten years since the release of ‘IM2,’ it’s the introspective rap records that most fans remember. “Lost” and “Superhuman” have always been somewhere present on my playlist. The high rapping level paired with cinematic touches rewards multiple listens, and the Malcolm X sample on the latter bears a unique fire each time I listen. Love to the late Hip Hop Pantsula, too, whose verse was one of my favourites for a while. On “Do I Move You,” Nina Simone’s royal bass vocals is side-by-side with MI’s confident staging, starting the record with the inquisition, “Tell me doctor, am I ill? Four years later, and I’m spitting still”.
The duo of Phenom and Ice Prince are set up for smashing last verses on “6 Foot, 7 Foot Freestyle” and “Fvck You” but M’s mastery still shines through especially on the latter. It’s incredibly hard to outshine him on a record but what the features do is balance out his lyrical inventiveness by sticking to their own strengths and doing what they do best. I remember how I’d animatedly wait for Phenom’s verse so I could scream, “I know you broke, but please pay attention.” That sounded so smart but now, in the age of sapa, it’s always said with an edge of well-natured mockery.
Today, M.I is one of the most prolific artists from these parts, and with each new release, he offers up an element of the unexpected despite this far in the game. As the rapper releases his fifth studio album ‘The Guy’ tomorrow, by the day’s end he will surely reveal more layers to his artistry while upholding his timeless legacy.
It’s popularly accepted that ‘Illegal Music 2’ is the best of the series. There’s an argument for the third instalment, but released in 2016, it came at a time when MI was refining his powers and seldom had the visceral quality of its predecesso. Records like “The Box” and “All Falls Down” respectively bore traits of MI’s continued exploration of personal ambition and what it means for that to come crashing, a humane attempt at capturing the fickleness of everything.